Cinema loves its grand, dramatic moments.
They’re the lifeblood of blockbusters, Oscar-worthy dramas and even in their own understated ways, indies; and they often form the point around which many an epic narrative pivots.
But what if you turned that on its head somewhat, and gave a film its big dramatic moment or two but embedded them in the everyday minutiae of life?
Then you would have the latest film from highly-regarded Australian director Sue Brooks, Looking For Grace, which is ostensibly about two parents Denise and Dan, played by Radha Mitchell and Richard Roxburgh respectively who both give impressive performances, looking for their lost runaway daughter Grace (Odessa Young).
The film seeks, not always successfully, through its fragmented, multi-viewpoint storyline, to remind us of something that few movies do – that all the big moments of life occur surrounded by the unremarkable banality of the everyday.
As theses go, it’s adventurous undertaking for a film, choosing to focus every bit as much as on the bits inbetween as on the gasp-inducing punctuation marks of life that make their presence while we’re drinking, eating, sleeping and going to work.
It’s an intriguing idea and one that Brooks hews to with gusto, granting each character a sense of detachment from the events in which they become embroiled to the extent that we can’t help be reminded by their every word and action that big things may be happening but they are not, nor will they ever be, the entire story.
And as a storytelling aim, a stark step away from the cinematic everyday, it’s clever and brave and adventurous, emblematic of Brooks’ willingness to forgo the obvious choices if a good story can be told.
Unfortunately while the idea intrigues, its execution, falls somewhat short of its laudable goals.
What we are left with as we encounter Grace, already on the bus with her best friend Sappho (Kenya Pearson) to see their favourite hardcore band in Ceduna, and then a truck driver called Bruce (Myles Pollard), semi-retired detective Tom (Terry Norris) and Dan and Denise, is a growing sense that these people are so consumed by small petty things that all the big things appear to fail to register in any meaningful way.
Granted Dan and Denise are shaken that Grace has left home with no warning, and there are some big issues confronting both this family and those who briefly come into their orbit, and these things do affect them and matter to them.
But by and large this decision to give the banal and the ordinary the preponderance of the space in the spotlight leaves us with characters who come across as unappealing and unlikeable, consumed by petty self-interest and clinging to odd perspectives that the epic events should have profoundly done something to dislodge or distort.
Even as you’re admiring Brooks clever focus on the whole slew of necessary everyday things that must happen regardless of whether a teenager is missing or a husband is away from home earning a living, you’re frustrated that one of the no-doubt unintended side effects of this approach are largely unsympathetic characters and an emotionally-unengaging narrative.
As layer upon layer builds as each particular character viewpoint is given an airing, you feel less involved in the film, rather than more, with no real sense of why these characters are doing what they’re doing or why, beyond the obvious.
So un-removed from the emotional epicentre, such as it is, are you that when a major plot twists does occur, a consequence of earlier events but wholly unexpected nevertheless, the main reaction is a “who cares?” shrugs of the shoulder.
It’s a pity because you want Brooks’ bold approach to pay off as fully it could do, you want a brave filmmaker’s out-of-the box perspective to pay dividends but instead it simply ends up muddying the waters, making it unclear why you would care for these people or their grossly selfish lives.
Perhaps that is how we might all come across if every last part of our lives were put on display, the Facebook-worthy moments juxtaposed with getting breakfast or knitting in front of the TV, but it makes for a film that sinks under the weight of the banal rather than being elevated by it.
Ultimately Looking For Grace is not much a failed experiment as simply the unintended consequence of giving the banal as much prominence as the heart-stoppingly dramatic.
You’re left at the end with a clear understanding of why it is that most movies choose to fill the bulk of their running time with big twists and emotionally-tranpsortive moments; while life as it happens all around these epic moments, it’s not usually what you remember about them nor where your focus usually is.
Life may not all be about the dramatic and the life-changing, and Brooks is right to point this out, succeeding to an extent that you can’t help but be pleased that she did, but it makes for a rather flat, curiously unemotional film, one that fails to make us care about anyone or anything.
Intellectually we know we should, and augmented rapturously beautiful cinematography at times, courtesy of Katie Milwright, and sublimely beautiful, emotionally-affecting but never intrusive music by Elizabeth Drake, we are reminded again that life is exactly this – the banal and the epic intertwined in ways that don’t allow them to be separated easily or at all.
But as storytellers, or consumers of the tales they spin, we want them to be spun apart, for the banal with its incessant demands and ceaseless chatter to leave us alone, and let the dramatic, the profoundly unexpected, the epic sweep us away and change our lives, even if only in passing and even if only for a moment.
Looking For Grace is a clever attempt to tell a story about life as it really is but it only succeeds, for the most part, it driving home why it is that the unusual and the noticeable win every time, not just in the movies but in what we remember about our lives.
- Viewed Friday 8 January 2016.